Albert Camus finds the human situation inscrutably absurd (in a time when Oxford Dictionaries awards “post-truth” their 2016 Word of the Year, it’s difficult to disagree). He traces absurdity’s source to a deep friction between the human appetite for inherent meaning and our fundamental inability to find any:
“And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)
Camus’ project is how to live with the fact of the absurd; the absurd is not his conclusion, it’s his premise. The irreconcilable clash between reality and human consciousness, and all the debris implied by this meeting of two great forces, ignites what proves for Camus the inaugural question: why? He writes:
“One day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. ‘Begins’ — this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness.”
What follows studies Camus’ essay to ask how, both individually and collectively, we can facilitate this “impulse of consciousness”.
The Myth of Sisyphus
To illustrate the absurd, Camus recounts the Greek myth of Sisyphus:
“The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour.”
This takes place for the duration of Sisyphus’ eternal life, trapped in purgatory. Yet, despite this bitter fate, Camus concludes: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” How?
Camus’ response is difficult. He tracks Sisyphus’ happiness to a recurring brief moment of lucidity, when the boulder reaches its apex and proceeds to roll back down the mountain. While descending to retake his place pushing the boulder, Camus imagines Sisyphus’ victory:
“The return to consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom…That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks towards the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
In short, a largeness of vision. A clear view of his utter hopelessness redeems Sisyphus. Can we learn from this? Should we? I worry that Sisyphus’ happiness here depends too greatly upon an abstraction, too little upon the cold rock his hands know so well.
Many of us can see ourselves in Sisyphus. The American middle class has been fruitlessly pushing a boulder that hasn’t budged since the 1970’s. What is the mechanism chaining Sisyphus to his useless task? The middle class — not to mention lower-income groups — to their toil? We can imagine it this way: should Sisyphus cease pushing the boulder, it would roll back and kill him. This is the ugly locomotive force behind the work ethic of so many Americans: survival, fear. We get out of bed in the morning and work from fear of what would happen otherwise. Consequences range from missed student loan payments, hungry children, to nihilism, but so long as we’re motivated by fear to enact our lives, afflictions from depression to suicide compound. If this sounds morose, take note that American suicide rates are at a 30-year high.
If we ask Camus what to do by reading his analysis of Sisyphus’ situation, he seems to contradict himself (given that we’re speaking of Albert Camus, I’m sure the contradiction arises out of my own misreading of him. Nevertheless). On one hand, he finds Sisyphus’ salvation only in an act of knowing, opposed to doing:
“Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition; it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.”
And yet Camus elsewhere turns — echoing so many others — to creation, art, as the most redemptive of acts, the most valiant of responses. Artistic orientation towards the eternal then becomes the project through which life is won, that “crowns his victory”:
“Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective. It is also the staggering evidence of man’s sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition, perseverance in an effort considered sterile. It calls for a daily effort, self-mastery, a precise estimate of the limits of truth, measure and strength.”
Where is Sisyphus’ creation? In what narrow crevice of his eternal routine can he paint, write, dance, or sing? What of the millions of Americans forced to work ~50 hours a week just to afford a cramped apartment and feed their children? Should they create when they return home, exhausted from a long day of work? Can Sisyphus do so during the brief time his hands are free, while returning down to his boulder? No; creation is not an afterthought, it requires energy. The first step to Sisyphus’ happiness may lie in lucidity, but if he cannot then make a craft of his toil, if he does not find himself in his rock, he remains locked up within himself. He lives from fear.
Ultimately, what is questioned is the relationship between the two surfaces of our lives, inner and outer. If salvation can be found neither in Sisyphus’ perspective nor his work alone, if Camus’ “absurd freedom” is exclusive to neither the mental nor the physical, it must arise from, or exist within, an interplay between them. In this debate over the relationship between our subjectivity and the experienced objective world, I like Emerson’s position, that we seek a congruence between within and without:
“The Ideas in every man’s mind make him what he is. His whole action and endeavor in the world is to utter and give an external shape to those thoughts…See how each of these abstractions has embodied itself in an imposing apparatus in the community; and how timber, brick, lime, and iron have flown into convenient shape, obedient to the master idea reigning in the minds of many persons.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture on English Literature)
Life, then, for Homo sapiens with self-consciousness, what Annie Dillard calls “a bitter birthday present from evolution”, is the reification of subjectivity. The unfolding of mind unto matter. Camus seems to suppose that Sisyphus’ life hinges only upon his largeness of view. He imagines Sisyphus happy while he retains lucidity of his absurd situation. I disagree; I suspect any view sufficiently large must boil over into action. A largeness of contemplation that remains locked up in our minds, never making the transition from thought to action, remains unpublished, incomplete.
Choice & Chains
Sisyphus, of course, had no choice in his outward life. But we do. We are not bound to our toils by the Gods. Our chains are implicit; insidious, and yet illusory. Camus remarks:
“‘I conclude that all is well,’ says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred…It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.”
If God’s death made fate a human matter, we must now ask what is required to make of fate an individual matter. Today’s iteration of capitalism, at least in America, is a socioeconomic, even existential, juggernaut. As it exists within a moral vacuum (which is ironic, given that it sprung up from moral philosophy), it extends its market-based morality onto society. Since capitalism is perhaps the greatest collective abstraction we live under, it may not be too hyperbolic to say that consumerism is our greatest and most prevalent connection to the divine, if the divine is the highest governing abstraction of our culture.
The project of reclaiming fate for the individual asks as much from the individual as the collective. If the seeds of self-cultivation are not planted and tended to by the individual, the project withers. So too must the environment be supportive of growth.
For the individual, our initial task is to direct our gaze. In such a bustling world, teeming with noteworthy oddities, where should we look? How should we look? We begin by squaring our shoulders towards something, and with Camus, I like the idea of facing up to the insurmountable mysteries that stand before us, as they have to other cultures throughout time. Set down here bewildered, we can keep our gaze fixed upon the unknown from which we came. This is Camus’ revolt. With full conscience of our assured inability to ever dispel the foggy mystery, we can inquire into it nevertheless, always satisfied with our meager sliver of knowledge, and yet insatiable in our quest to expand it. This is Camus’ impulse to creation:
“All existence for a man turned away from the eternal is but a vast mime under the mask of the absurd. Creation is the great mime. Such men know to begin with, and then their whole effort is to examine, to enlarge, and to enrich the ephemeral island on which they have just landed.”
But we do not live in a vacuum. We are not alone on our island (though there’s an interesting debate to be had on this, taking both idealism and solipsism seriously). The environment matters. It is exceedingly difficult to escape social and cultural institutions, they infuse with the air we breathe. As we inhale and exhale — the average docile 80-year-old will breathe 672,768,000 times over their lifetime, according to the Herald Tribune — cultural norms accumulate in our system like fuzz on a dryer’s lint trap. The engine of individual life, breath, becomes tinted, perhaps tainted.
But if breath is the engine for individual life, work may be so to the collective. To change the metaphor, if work is the lifeblood of our collective, we run peculiar blood tests. We seem obsessed with the quantity of blood, surprisingly negligent of the quality. The basic truth of work, what I find Camus to overlook in his imagining Sisyphus happy, is this:
Yes, it’s possible to be ‘happy’ in any situation. Sisyphus could have been happy as he was. Such is the claim of stoic philosophy, that mental equanimity can trump all outer circumstance. But this breeds a political apathy that sells the ameliorative potential of the collective short.
So long as our religion is capitalism, and our prayer consumption, work is inescapably central to our lives. We can stoically accept work that drains vitality, or we can grab the reins and do our best to steer towards work that vivifies. Work that liberates us “to examine, to enlarge, and to enrich” the ephemeral island we find ourselves aboard.
Four years spent studying economics left me puzzled. Everyone was concerned with optimizing efficiency, but couldn’t be bothered to wonder what markets should be efficient for. Efficiency is not an end, it’s a middleman. A metric of how well various methods produce intended objectives. What is economic efficiency’s objective? I was once told, by a European professor no less, it’s welfare, and in the same sentence told that welfare is efficiency. I didn’t have the cool to point out the logical error, I was dumbstruck. I’d like to say to him, now: if efficiency aims at welfare, and welfare is efficiency, then efficiency merely aims at itself, and thereby aims nowhere at all.
Value is a good answer, but defining value is even more taboo in conventional economics than questioning the welfare/efficiency conflation. Such economic agnosticism towards value beckons the market-based morality that subordinates quality to quantity; that would be happy with a 100% employment rate of Sisyphean labor. Would we all be happy pushing rocks, in vain, until we die?
This all leads, as you must now expect, to Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). I’ve come across no economic policy — though I consider UBI more of an existential policy — more potentially liberating, or emancipatory. UBI could provide everyone a sturdy platform from which to explore the human condition. To be sure, it could also spur an epidemic of booze drinking and Netflix watching. Though I find this argument unconvincing, it’s worth addressing.
Two areas of the UBI debate require serious attention. First, how to pay for it. If we cannot present sensible funding models, many people won’t engage with the idea. Scott Santens provides a great starting point for the funding debate here:
How to Reform Welfare and Taxes to Provide Every American Citizen with a Basic Income
A detailed funding plan for cross-partisan implementation of universal basic income in the United States
Second, we would have to think long and hard about ‘work’. What it is, why we do it, and what it could become. Rutger Bregman’s book, Utopia for Realists, addresses the notion of ‘work’, along with questions of funding, and a wealth of information on the debate.
The point here is not to flesh out Basic Income, that will require an essay of its own. The point, however dull it may be, is that UBI could be a robust political step towards making that impulse to consciousness — the one that tinges our lives with amazement, wonder — accessible to all.
Wealth is a floor upon which we can confront the absurd. Existing beneath that floor, in poverty where the air is thick with grime, all one can do is scratch towards the surface, gasping for oxygen. Like looking up through the dense canopy of a teeming jungle, the view from down under is short. The view above can be breathtaking. UBI could afford everyone a chance for the lucid view, a life free for the making. Free to draw our own conclusions, which may, if we’re lucky, resemble Camus’:
“I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”
Sisyphus’ rock needn’t be pushed forever. Society’s chief function could be to hold the rock, everyone’s rock, so that we’re free to push what we choose. Making the process more efficient is fine while we must perform it, but the boulder is not our end. We must keep an eye always on the exit, ready to transcend Sisyphus’ plight and square ourselves straight up to a larger view of life, cherishing anew the impossible task of meaning. There are no gods to forbid us, only the accumulated, thick lint of cultural norms to occlude our imaginations.
Partner this essay with Thoreau on the conflation between making a living and making a life: